CHICAGO – Tom Allen has always had a passion for coaching defense. The Indiana coach engineered one of the nation's biggest turnarounds on defense as the Hoosiers' defensive coordinator in 2016 and continued calling defensive plays even when he was elevated to the head coaching job before the Foster Farms Bowl in 2016.
That dual role – head coach and defensive coordinator – is over now. The Hoosiers promoted linebackers coach Kane Wommack to defensive coordinator in December and Allen relinquished his play-calling responsibilities. The upcoming season will be the first with Allen not in charge of the defense since 2015.
The change was a difficult one for Allen to make, as he admitted at Big Ten Media Days at the Hilton Chicago on Thursday, but he recognized it had to be done. So far, the transition has gone smoothly, but the head coach couldn't guarantee he'd feel the same when the season is over.
“I'll tell you in November how I feel,” Allen said, laughing. “I'm a hands-on guy, but at the same time, it was time (to give up being the coordinator). I feel really good about it. I haven't second-guessed it.
“There's a million things going on, it's helping me be a better head coach already, it's helping me be a better recruiter already, it's helping me be a better leader of our coaching staff and I feel like we're having a better summer because of it, because I'm focusing my time on the players.”
Allen knew it was time to give up control of the defense late in the 2018 season when he found himself staying up well past midnight on Thursdays and Fridays going through his call sheet and watching film, a process that sometimes left him feeling fatigued at kickoff Saturday. He even slept in his office for the first time at Indiana.
Allen's new role of focusing his entire focus on being head coach has, as he hoped, allowed him to concentrate on developing players and forming deeper bonds with them. The players, especially on offense, have already seen the benefits of having the 49-year-old coach bouncing around to different groups rather than staying mostly with the defense.
“With him not calling the defense and with him being in offensive meetings instead of having to run defensive meetings, just his presence in a meeting room changes the way younger guys experience that meeting,” senior offensive lineman Coy Cronk said.
“When the head man's there, the atmosphere just changes and the defense has kind of been spoiled with that because he was the defensive coordinator. Now that he's not, the offense is feeling his presence and I think that's going to make a huge difference.”
Now the defensive play-calling falls to Wommack, a precocious former Arkansas and Southern Miss fullback and tight end who has experience as the defensive coordinator at Eastern Illinois and South Alabama.
He inherits a defense that gave up 5.8 yards per play in 2018, 88th in the country. That's far below where the Hoosiers expect to be in 2019, especially with the highly-touted 2018 freshman class now possessing a year of experience.
Wommack and Allen are in agreement on not only defensive philosophy, but also on how to motivate their players. Allen knew when he hired Wommack to coach the linebackers prior to the 2018 season that he was potentially hiring a future defensive coordinator and told him so. Giving up the play-calling has been easier because he trusts Wommack to make the right decisions in the heat of the moment.
“I don't want him to call it the way I would call it,” Allen said. “Call it from the heart. ... I've gotta do a good job of letting him make the calls and not second-guessing.”
Even as Allen steps away from calling defensive plays, however, he's still the same coach and motivator he's always been.
“He's always been passionate, he's always been fired up and he's always been a players-first coach,” Cronk said. “That part hasn't changed.”